What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

with Duluth Wayforger™ Wendy Johnson of @JoiaFoodFarm.

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Once upon a time, North America had an abundance of thriving and vast ecosystems that were home to many different species of fauna. The cycle of life was whole and pure, and these ecosystems functioned naturally – resilient in various climatic episodes for thousands of years.

The deep prairie roots of the Midwest held onto the deep rich soil the glaciers brought millions of years ago so that when large rainstorms would sweep across the plains, those deep veins would absorb excess rain at an amazing rate.

When temperatures were hot and dry, moisture was regulated by the teeming life beneath the soil surface – gazillions of microbes and fungi communicating, trading and sharing, making up a unique ecosystem underground. This resilient prairie ecosystem helped absorb water in times of too much rain and hold that water for slow release in times of drought.

Meanwhile, large and plentiful bison herds grazed the prairie, grazing on the tops of the grasses and broad-leafed vegetation, eating just enough to stimulate new growth before moving on. These ruminants were an inextricable part of the vast and healthy Midwest ecosystem.

Fast-forward to the mid-1800s and a historic land grab designed to entice Americans to move west beyond the Mississippi River. It was the beginning of the end for this beautiful prairie ecosystem that had once teemed with so much life and abundance.

Deep-tillage plowing methods destroyed a millennium’s worth of perennial life that had been collaboratively working both above and beneath the ground. Farm annuals like corn, wheat and oats replaced the grasslands to feed livestock and working horses. The robust, rich black soils of the prairie could grow anything, and farmers considered it a goldmine.

Ignorant of the precious soil’s need for replenishment that had been provided by native perennials and grazing ruminants like the bison that once roamed the area, farmers continued the poor land management that eventually led to the famous Dust Bowl – a perfect storm of drought, overuse and outright abuse of the land’s resources. Robbed of essential nutrients and lacking its natural replenishment cycles, the soil had lost its vitality, literally turning to dust.

Regenerative agriculture is the hope and opportunity to mimic what the prairie once provided and to produce an abundant food supply while working with nature and protecting natural resources.

The term means to regenerate soil, to work at feeding and caring for the livestock and the soil, using grazing animals to stimulate growth of the plants whose roots work symbiotically with microbes and fungi below ground.

Regenerative agriculture nurtures the earth, works within the cycles of nature, lends resilience in times of environmental stress, raises animals humanely and ethically, pays farmers a fair wage and grows and nurtures community in the process.

Regenerative agriculture continuously improves the cycles of human community, the biological community and the economic community – it never takes more than it needs.

At Jóia Food Farm, we believe it is necessary to be resilient; to not overuse or abuse our precious natural resources of soil, water and the air we breathe. Climate events are becoming stronger and more forceful, and we need to continue to grow and raise healthy food.

Instead of bison and native prairie species, we graze sheep and cattle as our ruminant saviors across acres of perennial forages, allowing them to do what is natural and instinctual to them. 

We help manage their movement across the landscape with once-a-day moves from one paddock to the next, providing them plentiful food for them to eat. Once bitten, the forage plants are stimulated to grow for their own survival, harnessing the sun for photosynthesis and sequestering carbon in the atmosphere, pulling it down into its roots where microbes and fungi trade and share, storing the excess while pushing nutrients back into the plant. It is a beautiful and magnificent cycle that has existed since life itself and is what made the prairie ecosystem so abundant. It is also what makes food so tasty and rich in vitamins and minerals.

Besides perennial grazing, regenerative agriculture includes the use of cover crops within annual crop rotations. Cover crops are plants that cover and grow in the soil during times when an annual plant like corn or wheat is not actively growing. These cover crops can be grazed, or they can just be allowed to grow, later terminated by winter temperature or rolled for mulch.

Examples include growing an annual like corn, then in the fall, as the corn plants are drying down, seed a cover crop like cereal rye or oats to keep living roots in the soil to feed the living microbes and fungi in the soil for longer.

Other beneficial practices include diverse crop rotations and little to no tillage, because too much tillage destroys soil structure and underground life quickly. Much of the current agricultural practice in the Midwest is to produce two annual crops: corn and soybeans.

A more diverse example of a crop rotation might be growing corn with a cover crop one year, then soybeans with a cover crop the following year, then oats with a mix of cover crops the year after that and grazing the cover crops – then starting the cycle over again. The key is keeping something growing in the soil at all times and adding grazing animals to eat the cover crops.

Regenerative agriculture mimics the once-vital prairie ecosystem while growing and raising food for a very large and increasingly non-agrarian human population. Being resilient to climate change, and protecting the natural resources required to grow food and restore the life below and above ground, is necessary to continue to grow healthy, nutrient-rich food for all life into the future.

Wendy bio